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2019 South Walton Artist of the Year Jenna Varney

Because she grew up the daughter of a clam digger on Long Island, New York, it should come as no surprise that Jenna Varney ultimately made her home in a beach community.

“Most of my memories as a kid were from being on his clam boat,” she says. “So to come here, this beautiful beach community surrounded by water, and all of these beautiful things, it all just came together.”

Varney’s first canvas was a placemat at an Italian restaurant in New York. To this day, Varney’s parents still have that drawing. At age 8, she began taking formal art lessons and painting with oil paints, and soon after was invited to study with watercolorist Mary Reay. While in high school, Varney would apprentice for modern contemporary artist Malcolm Morley.

“I’ve always loved art,” she says. “I’ve always loved museums, and when I was younger I dreamed of going to Venice, Italy and France. It was kind of just ingrained in me, I guess.”

As an Air Force spouse, Varney has moved around the world, and no matter where her family was stationed she would paint and create. But while she’s had a knack for art and creativity since childhood, the 2019 Visit South Walton Artist of the Year didn’t find her footing as a professional artist until the Air Force assigned her husband to Eglin Air Force Base in 2002.

“We were never really anywhere long enough to get my talents out there and get in a gallery,” she says. “Once you would get a clientele or a following you were out of there.”

But she didn’t let the dream of becoming a full-time artist fade. While looking for a home in Florida, Varney and her father were traveling along 30A and she knew she’d found her heart’s home. She told her dad she knew it was the perfect place for her to sell art, too.

During her first “real art show” at Gulf Place in 2014, Varney sold a painting of Oyster Lake. It gave her the confidence that she was on the right path. Now as Visit South Walton’s 2019 Artist of the Year, Varney is moving faster down that path.

“I was not expecting it at all,” Varney says of the phone call she received telling her she had won. “There was a lot of screaming and a lot of jumping around.”

“To be up there with such talent, it’s almost unreal,” she says, noting prestigious past winners, as well as talented fellow artists like Clint Eagar and Chris Alvarado.

Varney’s signature style is hyper-realism. She likes to say that it’s “photo-realism with a little bit of life added to it.” Looking through her works, you’ll see incredible detail ingrained in subjects ranging from clams and oysters to sea turtles and other marine life.

“My hyper-realism stuff is really my close ups, my oysters, my clams,” she said. “I like the glitz, I like the sheen, I like the colors that come out. Capturing that, it’s important. A photograph is flat, so I’m trying to do something that has depth.”

Is she ready to represent South Walton’s vibrant arts community in 2019 and accept the torch passed along by previous South Walton Artist of the Year winners?

“It’s very exciting, and a challenge I’m looking forward to,” she says. “I think I’m ready. Everything up to this point so far has prepared me for this.”

To learn more about Varney, visit her website at jennavarney.com.

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